Addressing Higher Ed’s Online Cheating Problem

How big is the online cheating problem in higher education today?

Dr. David Rettinger, Professor of Psychology and Director of Academic Integrity Programs at University of Mary Washington, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about changing the incentives altogether and prevent the very need for online cheating in the first place.

An Honest Look at Cheating in Higher Ed

Everything’s changing so fast in the current COVID environment that any data about the size and scope of the cheating problem is bound to be at least two years old. Having said that, online cheating has been a growth problem because internet use has become a growth problem. 

But data gathered pre-COVID suggested that we weren’t seeing a huge growth in academic misconduct as the result of the internet. 

Many people believe that the internet is causing some massive growth in academic dishonesty, but Don McCabe collected data through his big longitudinal study, which started in 1992. His work didn’t reveal any major growth. In fact, the data showed the sort of normal ups and downs you would expect in longitudinal data collection.

Can Big Brother Technology Prevent Dishonesty?

Video cameras. They’re the most literal big brother technology of them all. Orwell had them, the Big Brother TV show has them, and now universities are asking students to open cameras up into their own homes to track their behavior. These universities have students take their webcam and display the entire room where they’re taking the test. They ask test takers to create an audio and video recording of themselves taking the test. 

At least they’re being transparent in the sense that they’re letting students know that they’re recording them. If we ever get to a point where students are being recorded without their knowledge, that would probably win as the biggest brotheriest item. But students likely give away more information than they realize through some of these systems. Consider keyboard typing fingerprint checking, for example. This technology compares your typing patterns to those used on an exam so reviewers can determine if the same person is typing in two different instances. 

Students reveal more than they necessarily know they’re giving out, and almost certainly they  didn’t consciously consent to give it. 

How Can We Minimize or Eliminate College Cheating?

Better question: How much are students really learning from our traditional lecture-and-assessment-style classes? 

Not nearly as much as we imagine that they are. Three tests and a final exam don’t compose an acceptable learning strategy. It’s just what happened to work in the large lectures that many of us grew up with. 

Let’s take advantage of what we know from the behavioral science data. Here’s what what the data says works:

  • Frequent testing
  • Using testing as a learning experience itself
  • Giving students a chance to own and engage with the material on their own terms
  • Deep learning — as opposed to shallow learning — over time 

These approaches are much likelier to lead to long term growth in knowledge and skills. 

In addition to being pedagogically superior, this approach reduces cheating because the students feel like the stakes are lower. When students feel like the stakes are high and that the outcomes are out of their control, they’re more likely to resort to actions that they say don’t comport with their values. When we can give students a chance to fail gracefully and learn from their mistakes, they’re much less likely to take shortcuts. 

There are other things we can do to either prevent or mitigate academic misconduct, too. Open book, open note tests create an easy way to circumvent the notion that students have to go Google the answers. Once you create an open book, open note test, you have to rethink what you’re assessing. It gives students a chance to have the material at hand and apply it in a way that challenges them. The learning challenge, therefore, lies in application, not in memorization. That’s going to circumvent a lot of academic misconduct because what you were calling misconduct, you’re now calling good learning. 

One of the most useful things we can do is make sure students understand why we’re doing what we’re doing in the classroom. When a student feels like what they’re doing is a waste of time or when they are not able to connect the activities they’re doing with their long term growth, they’re willing to circumvent the activity. Helping them understand why we’re asking them to do what we do is a huge part of getting them to buy in to doing the work.

Next Steps to Improving Academic Honesty

The best way to reduce academic misconduct is to teach better. Don’t dumb down your work. Instead, make it more personalized, challenging, and engaging. The vast majority of learners will rise to the occasion. 

At the same time, it’s going to be hard to deter students who are there because they are looking for a commodity, which is how they see an academic degree. Neither tech nor proactive pedagogical solutions will necessarily improve their academic honesty. We’re still struggling with how to deal with students who are not there to learn. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. David Rettinger from University of Mary Washington. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.